Every four years, Iowa loses its status as a flyover state and catches the eye of the rest of the country. Suddenly, the state so often confused with Ohio and Idaho is thrust into the national spotlight because of its "first in the nation" political status. The Iowa caucuses occur every four years, with each presidential election — but if there is no Republican incumbent prior to the caucuses, the national focus shifts to Iowa for another event: the Ames Straw Poll.
To Iowans and members of the national media, the Ames Straw Poll is just another step on the long road to a presidential election. To residents of other states, the process can be confusing. What is a straw poll? How is it different from the caucuses? Do Democrats have one, or is it just for Republicans?
"The straw poll is basically a fundraising event and a daylong 'fiesta,' 'county fair,' 'mini-convention' or carnival in August sponsored by the Iowa Republican Party. It was first held in 1979," according to a column written by ISU professor of political science Steffen Schmidt.
Candidates buy space and set up tents where they serve food and feature speeches and music, Schmidt explained. Although attendees are bussed in from all across the country, only residents of Iowa are allowed to vote in the straw poll. Voters — who must purchase a ticket in order to cast a vote —have their fingers marked with ink to prevent them from voting multiple times, but Schmidt still stressed the unscientific nature of the poll.
"The straw poll is one indicator of how the campaigns are doing, but it's important to remember that the last one had around 14,000 votes cast," said Sam Roecker, communications director of the Iowa Democratic Party. "In a state of 3 million people, there is still a lot of work to be done in order to win the caucuses or win in a general election."
Roecker explained that the Democratic Party does not hold a straw poll. In years that Democrats have a competitive primary, like 2008, the Democrats use their annual Jefferson Jackson Dinner to "welcome the candidates and give them an opportunity to speak directly to Iowans," he said, adding that there is no straw poll or voting at the dinner.
According to the Iowa Republican Party's announcement, 16,892 ballots were cast in Saturday's straw poll. In past years, the winner of the Ames Straw Poll went on to win the Republican presidential nomination twice out of a total of five polls. Only in the 2000 presidential election had the winner, George W. Bush, won the previous year's straw poll.
"The straw poll sets up the caucus," said Iowa Rep. Steve King. "And if you don't have the straw poll here as the early measure of the strength of the candidates, then the Iowa caucus itself dissipates in its effect. So they're like bookends in the 'first in the nation' contest."
Natalie Ginty, chairperson of the Iowa Federation of College Republicans, spent the morning volunteering for the Republican Party of Iowa, selling tickets at a booth near Hilton Coliseum. Straw poll tickets went for $30 apiece this year, but many attendees were given free tickets by campaign staff.
"It's the biggest fundraiser that happens [for the Republican Party of Iowa]," Ginty said, adding that the plan is for proceeds to pay for Republican efforts for the next several election cycles.
The Ames Straw Poll funds "a lot," Ginty said. Although the party does constant fundraising, this is its biggest event, and she doesn't think there's another one like it.
The straw poll is "primarily a fundraiser," Ginty said — as opposed to the caucuses, which are seen as elections. She said she thinks people enjoy the straw poll because "it's like a carnival."
With its long food lines, musical performances featuring everyone from Mike Huckabee to Randy Travis and freebie giveaways, the 2011 Ames Straw Poll did very much resemble a carnival — or the Iowa State Fair that so many Republican candidates have visited this week.
"This is a great thing for Iowa," said Gov. Terry Branstad, who voted in the poll but will not divulge who received his vote because he just wants to be a "good host."
King believes the Ames Straw Poll is especially important because it levels the playing field for Republican candidates.
"There's nothing else that does it like this," King said. "And who's better at it than Iowans? We're measuring the authenticity of the candidate."
King remembered, as a chid, asking his father if he could have been president. He was inspired by his father's eventual answer: "I suppose I could have."
If Iowa were to lose its straw poll and caucus, "those little kids aren't going to hear that message anymore," King said. He believes that without the straw poll, the candidate with the most money can buy a "media image" without having to let people get to know him or her as a person.
Rep. Thaddeus McCotter, who received just 35 votes in the Ames Straw Poll, did not expect to win. Instead, he saw the event as "an introduction."
"We have not paid for anybody's ballot. We're not busing anybody in," McCotter said during a break from playing guitar on his stage at the straw poll. "Again, it's an introduction. The caucuses will be the ultimate test, and we are going to compete in those. I think you have to."
Roecker, however, is not inclined to agree with King's or McCotter's interpretations. The caucuses, in his opinion, do much more to gauge Iowans' opinions than the straw poll does.
"Although the caucuses are organized and run by each party, they're not a fundraising event, and they take place in every precinct across the state, which makes it much more accessible for Iowans to participate," Roecker said.
According to Schmidt's column, "the 'magic' of the straw poll is ... the ultimate objective is for a candidate to surpass previous expectations of how well they might do in the straw poll itself or how well the candidate might do in the actual caucuses. So the winner is not always the number one vote getter, but whoever beat the predictions, beat the expectations."
If what Schmidt says is true, then former Sen. Rick Santorum can chalk this one up as a win. Santorum could be seen mingling with supporters all day, and during his straw poll speech, he described his campaign as "the little engine that could ... scratching and clawing for any recognition we can get." He finished in fourth place Saturday.
While fundraising is the primary aim of the Ames Straw Poll, the amount of money spent by a candidate does not necessarily indicate the level of success he or she will achieve.
According to the conservative news site The Iowa Republican, Paul spent the most — by far — on his straw poll lot, shelling out $31,000. Bachmann paid $17,000, and third-place candidate Tim Pawlenty paid $15,000 for his out-of-the-way lot. Santorum also spent $15,000. McCotter, however, was the second-highest spender. His lot cost $18,000.